"My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of men in the armies which I had helped to raise," Henry Stimson wrote two years after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender whose 40th anniversaries we have been commemorating.
"The ultimate responsibility for the recommendation rested upon me," said the man who was Harry Truman's secretary of war and chairman of a blue-ribbon commission charged with the last words of advice to the president on the use of The Bomb. It is worth remembering how he summed up his recommendation:
"In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of suchossibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face." Note the operative phrase: "men in our position and subject to our responsibilities." Note also the concern with the consequences not just of the first use of nuclear arms but also of not using them if the latter-day second-guesses had turned out to be wrong.
By now you have probably heard them all. Navy men said a naval blockade would do the job. The same was said by Air Force advocates of "conventional" fire-bombing (as devastating in its own way, and as indiscriminate in its toll of civilian life). Gen. Douglas MacArthur thought land forces could have prevailed with far fewer casualties than those projected by some war plans. The notion that two bombs won the war came hard to the commanders of the long and costly campaigns that had brought Japan so close to its knees.
The clear implication of revisionist history would have us believe that somehow it didn't have to happen. The story line from "Fat Man" to "Minuteman" and more than enough megatonnage to incinerate the planet many times over is easy enough to trace.
But if Hiroshima was the first of its kind, it does need to be said that Nagasaki has so far been the last. This is in no way to suggest that the laying waste of two cities can be seen as peace-keeping "demonstration shots." For the way World War II ended, the world will truly never be the same. But it does not necessarily follow that without this first terrible use of nuclear weapons the world would now be a far different, better, safer place.
There would have been no way to put nuclear war technology on hold in the mind of man. To believe that more deadly nuclear weapons would not have been developed, stockpiled and deployed, that there would have been no nuclear arms race, is to put good sense and sweet reason to a heavy test. As valid a case can be made that the known terrors of Hiroshima have contributed some added measure of restraint.
But that is not my point, which is that the insanity of the arms race we know keeps driving us fruitlessly back to revisit and revise the fateful decision-making in 1945. It is as if there has to be something other than the obvious reason why the United States opened the door to doomsday -- some miscalculation as crazy as the consequences of the arms race itself.
There lies the value of Stimson's article in the February 1947 issue of Harper's magazine. He does not burden us with ancillary arguments. Stimson was the most important man in the only decision-making process Truman had at his service. And the decision-makers' responsibility precluded even a small gamble that the second opinions might be wrong.
Consider the effect of even a relatively low number of invasion casualties when it came to be known inevitably that the United States had had the means to bring the war to a swift end -- and yet stayed its hand.
Stimson does not apologize. "Death is the inevitable part of any order that a wartime leader gives," he wrote. "The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over 100,000 Japanese . . . and I do not wish to gloss it over."
But this "deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice," he concludes. We do not have to accept the choice to value Stimson's account of how it came to be made, or the lesson he recognized even as he was making it. "War in the 20th century has grown steadily more barbarous, more destructive, more debased in all aspects. Now, with the release of atomic energy, man's ability to destroy himself is very nearly complete. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war. They also made it clear we must never have another war."
Stimson's final words: "This is the lesson men and leaders everywhere must learn." For the future, he said, "There is no other choice."